IT was 10 years ago this month that a very serious conflict dubbed the “Scarborough Standoff ” broke out between China and the Philippines. This resulted in our loss two months later of Panatag Shoal (also called Bajo de Masinloc and Scarborough Shoal) to China.
The shoal, claimed by both countries, is the first ever territory that we have lost since independence, the tragedy more stark as it is just 240 kilometers away from the Zambales, much nearer than any of the features we claim in the Kalayaan Island Group. Then President Aquino 3rd, his foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, and anti-China commentators condemned the loss as another instance of the Asian superpower’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea. That misleading view has been the basis for many Filipinos’ support for the shameful restoration of US military bases in the country, under the guise of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
I exposed the true story of this sad chapter in our nation’s history in several columns way back in 2016, which were republished in my 2022 book Debacle: The Aquino regime’s Scarborough fiasco and the South China Sea arbitration deception, in which I provide sources and documentation for my assertions, none of which have been challenged by those mentioned in it.
Following, in two parts, are excerpts from the book’s chapter entitled “The Scarborough Debacle”:
The US government had rushed in 2010 the transfer of the refurbished cutter USCGC Hamilton to the Philippine government, which became the Philippines’ biggest warship, commissioned in August 2011 as the BRP Gregorio del Pilar.
It was this warship’s deployment to Scarborough Shoal that triggered the chain of events that became a debacle for the country — the loss of that area to China.
The Aquino 3rd administration in April 2012 deployed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both China and the Philippines as their sovereign territory. A secret Navy report claimed that the reason for this deployment was “to protect the Scarborough Shoal from further destruction and to assert our rightful stewardship to the area as a responsible coastal state.”
This however had very serious consequences for the country.
“First, the Philippines sent out a message that it’s ready to fight; you sent a warship. Second, you handled it as an international dispute,” said Huang Jing, professor at the National University of Singapore’s Center on Asia and Globalization said at the time.
Despite their conflicting claims over Panatag Shoal — called Huangyan Island by the Chinese — the two countries, except for a few episodes in the past that were quickly resolved and forgotten, didn’t make the dispute a burning issue to be resolved. There had been no incessant attempt on either side to physically assert its claims and make it an area exclusive to their nationals. Thus, fishermen from China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam fished undisturbed in its waters.
The government vessels that patrol the area had all been civilian: in the case of China its vessels China Marine Surveillance (CMS), a unit of the State Oceanic Administration, and for the Philippines its Coast Guard and the agriculture department’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
However, on April 10, 2012 the BRP Gregorio del Pilar arrived at the shoal — the first naval warship from any country ever to do so. Eleven Naval Special Operations Group personnel conducted what is called in naval parlance a VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure) operations on eight Chinese fishing vessels, from 9 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. The Navy’s report on the operations claimed that its soldiers found “corals, giant clams, and endangered species” in all eight vessels, and told the Chinese fishermen they would be arrested for violating Philippine laws on such poaching.
Two hours after the Navy’s VBSS operation, two CMS ships arrived at the shoal and positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing vessels, “thus preventing the arrests of the erring Chinese fishermen,” the Philippine foreign affairs department said.
The warship’s deployment was a blunder. China claimed the high moral ground, and protested that the Philippines had militarized the disputed Scarborough Shoal, that the Filipino warship in the disputed area was a threat to use violence to settle a territorial claim — an approach which all claimants in the SCS, even the US, condemn would be a violation of the United Nations’ charter.
For the Chinese, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar wasn’t just another warship: It was donated by the US, the first of three to be given to the Philippines that was part of the US’ new foreign policy called “Pivot to Asia” to strengthen its role in a region it does not have any territory.
This, the Chinese perceived, was a thinly-disguised part of a US plot in its campaign to drive a wedge between the Philippines and China and contain its rise as a superpower in the region, using the Aquino regime as its puppet.
China had been cautious — and clever — in deploying only civilian vessels in disputed territories in the South China Sea, and in this episode in interdicting the Philippine vessels from bringing to Palawan the arrested Chinese fishermen.
Photos published in the front pages of the Philippine Star and the Philippine Daily Inquirer showed Philippine navy troopers armed with assault rifles guarding disheveled Chinese fishermen, which triggered an outrage in China against the Philippines never before seen. Chinese netizens with their new-found venue for expressing their sentiments, social media, demanded that the People’s Liberation Army invade the country.
“The Philippine warship harassed helpless Chinese fishermen who were seeking refuge from a storm inside Scarborough Shoal, with its sailors boarding their vessels and pointing their guns at our fishermen,” the Chinese embassy spokesman raged.
There were several cases in the past years when the Coast Guard arrested Chinese nationals for alleged illegal fishing in the Bajo de Masinloc area, but there had been no such photos of armed military men guarding Chinese fishermen.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th, whom Aquino asked to undertake secret negotiations with the Chinese officials to settle the crisis, alleged that then foreign secretary Albert del Rosario gave the photographs to the newspapers. The photos were picked up by international media, which outraged the Chinese, with a torrent of anti-Filipinos posts in social media, even lashing at its own government for allowing a “small power” to humiliate what is supposed a rising superpower.
Aquino was told by a top US Embassy official that his government’s move to arrest the Chinese fishermen portrayed the Philippines as the aggressor. Aquino immediately ordered the warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar to leave the shoal on April 12, saying “we’re not going to war.”
Trying to make light of his major pol blunder, Aquino said flippantly, “It’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.” To cover up their massive boo-boo, del Rosario and the Navy chief told media that the warship was returning to its base to be replenished with supplies and water.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and two Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels were ordered to remain in the area, later joined by another PCG ship.
A third CMS vessel from China arrived in succeeding days, together with over two dozen small Chinese fishing vessels obviously mobilized in a show of sea-borne “people-power” of sorts.
Both Chinese and Filipino vessels refused to leave the shoal knowing — going by customary international law — that the country that leaves first is in effect giving up control of the area, and eventually, its sovereignty.
What riled the Chinese was the Aquino government’s very public moves to get US help against China. Aquino and del Rosario begged the US to intervene in the conflict, asking it to deploy US warships to the area in order to send the message to China that it would defend the Philippine vessels if attacked.
Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin rushed to Washington, D.C. on April 30 to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Del Rosario invoked Clinton’s statements a year earlier that the US would stand by its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that requires it to defend the Philippines in case of attack by any foreign power on its military forces.
Del Rosario even issued an official statement on May 9, 2012, a few days after his meeting with Clinton, in which he declared that “US officials have publicly declared four times that it would honor the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that obliges American troops to help defend the Philippines if it comes under attack.”
The US embassy echoed Rosario’s claim when it issued a statement that Clinton in their meeting in Washington did say that “the United States reaffirms our commitments and obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.” Clinton, however, in several statements emphasized that the “US does not take a position in territorial disputes between two countries.”
There was, however, a clear danger of military hostilities breaking out as Aquino’s mishandling of the Scarborough crisis — reported in China as his deployment of “Philippine warships” against helpless Chinese fishermen — had stoked Chinese nationalist furor. Indeed, the so-called “Century of Humiliation” in the 19th century during which European powers grabbed swaths of its territory is still central in the Chinese consciousness. The Communist Party of China risked losing its nationalist credentials and their legitimacy if they appeared to be soft on such a militarily and economically weaker country, especially as it openly tried to elicit American support.
Responding to del Rosario’s plea for US military intervention, the Chinese raised their belligerent rhetoric. Editorials in China’s state-run newspapers and even in the People’s Liberation Army Daily called for war against the Philippines over Scarborough.
On Wednesday, April 26, 2023: How the US resolved the crisis and averted war by fooling Aquino and del Rosario
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